Putting Power in Players’ Paws


Ok, so your players probably have hands, not paws, but I liked the alliteration.

The traditional roleplaying game, D&D, is very much structured in a specific way: the GM has a specific game/plot/monster that the players have to beat. In this way, D&D is structured much like a computer RPG, it just happens to be played with multiple players (and so can Baldur’s Gate 2, not to mention World of Warcraft).

There is value to this model; if you have one GM who is particularly good at plotting stories and taking care of all of the details of the world, and a lot of players without a knack for world-building, well, why not run a game like this? Labor gets divided up appropriately, and everybody gets to do what they’re good at.

Typically, however, everybody has something to offer to the story if given the chance, and 4 minds can probably come up with better ideas overall than just 1. This is why, typically (especially if I really trust the players), I prefer to run games that are much more player-driven. For me, good player-driven systems are those which have narrative elements built into them. The most obvious examples would be any game with a Fate point system. Such systems tend to give fate points to the player, and they can narrate something about the world that is unlikely but still possible by expending a Fate point. However, for me, the pinnacle of player-driven games is Apocalypse World. I understand that there are MORE player-driven games, but I find that the lack of a solid authority in completely player-driven games tends to leave most people feeling unsatisfied. Apocalypse World is the perfect balance: it lets the players help create the world and orient the plot, but doesn’t give them too much power to determine results.

First, let’s start with world-building. If you’re sitting down to a game of Apocalypse World, you know one thing: you are playing in a post-apocalyptic setting. Everything else is decided in the first session (or later, as you go along). First, we have the global, sweeping questions. Is your apocalypse world a water-world, a desert, or a series of underground caves? Was it caused by magic, or alien invasion, or nuclear war? What resources are scarce/abundant? Is there hope of surviving the apocalypse and rebuilding? If so, in an average lifetime, or in some eventual future? I like to decide these as a group, that way your whole party is invested in the world you’ve created.

Once you’re there, it’s time to sketch out the world. What is considered a large settlement? What large settlements remain? 50000 people? 5000? 500? 50? Remember those scarce resources? How do the large settlements you’ve defined procure them? Are there any threats to them? Bandits? Radioactive monsters? The remnants of a surviving military force? I like to do this by going through each player and getting basic information about them. Where did you grow up? Was it pre- or post-apocalypse? What was life like growing up? Where do you live now? Tell me about your life there. Tell me about a time you felt (or were) threatened in this world. What was this threat? How did you escape/survive/deal with it? What resource does your character miss most? How does he get them? You can go around the table, establishing basic background for each character, while building the world. Good players will build off of each others’ backgrounds, drawing the details they gave to the world into their own descriptions and making them real.

But you don’t need all of the details to start; you’re just setting the stage. As the game goes on, you should prompt the players to continue driving conflict. One of the attributes in the game is ‘Weird’, which can mean anything from psychology to ESP to a collective unconscious to a psychic maelstrom, you decide as a group. This attribute, like every other attribute, has penalties for failure. And one of the penalties for Weird is the perfect time to prompt your players character-background: they can share a traumatic memory, or describe something they’ve failed at in the past, or suffer any number of other penalties.

But as a follow-up, conflicts in Apocalypse World are set up so that the stakes are not success or failure, but rather, what you give up to succeed. That is not to say that there is no threat of failure or death, but simply that it is minimized in favor of some consequences. This makes players a lot more willing to put their characters in bad situations, as they know that they will probably get out with an interesting story and more baggage, not die (and that if they do die, it will be epic).

Background establishes stories, and conflict drives them, and Apocalypse prompts players to provide both in spades. As such, I think it makes a fantastic player-driven RPG, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. However, as I’ve stressed, systems never force a playstyle nor disallow another, they just prompt them.

So here are some techniques I’ve used in games to give players some control in games:

I encourage players to narrate all of their actions:

  • The more detail is given, the more the player starts to feel the character. For thoughts on this, here’s Vin Diesel! If your player is acting like your character and thinking like your character, you’re going to see more of the character and less of the player.
  • It makes for more fun gameplay than ‘I attack the goblin’

I like to connect new elements of the game to the players:

  • When I introduce an interesting NPC, I ask one of the players how they know the NPC (or how the NPC knows them)
  • When the PCs reach a new location, I ask each player if they’ve been there before. Of any player who says yes, I ask them to begin a brief story of what happened last time they were there. I the story runs long, I may cut them off and go back to the campaign. But don’t worry, we’ll get the rest of that story as the campaign goes on :)

I like to help the players establish elaborate backgrounds that will become relevant; try to make

  • Every player should start with a little background; even if I’m not playing Apocalypse World, I’ll ask for a brief origin story and blurb about the character.
  • Whenever an interesting event feels like it should relate to a character, I ask the player how their character feels about the event, and how it reminds them of their past. In many ways, these descriptions function as roleplaying scenes of their own.
  • Whenever a player fails a roll that’s largely psychological, that can be an excuse to talk about the character’s emotions and history.
  • Once I have that information coming, I can start to introduce new elements of the story that relate to the character, no work necessary.

I like to leave details undefined until they happen to be. GMs have a tendency to overshare. This is perfectly understandable; they want the players to see all of the work they put into the campaign. But leave details out until the players actually learn them, and that way you can tailor things as you go.

Finally, I like to keep fluid plans. If a player says ‘it would be cool if X’ or ‘oh man, what if X’, I start to think ‘yeah, what if X?’. If you can fit X into your campaign without changing it, or with minor changes, and it is an improvement to your campaign, do it. Otherwise, try and make X show up somewhere it will fit. And if it won’t fit anywhere, save it for another campaign. When X happen, the player will be excited to have ‘called it’ so far off. They will enjoy your game even more because you share their sensibilities. Of course, if they get the idea that you added it in on the fly, they’ll think you’re a great improvisor, which is also good. Either way, you benefit from listening to your players.

Do you try to involve your players as plot-drivers?

If not, why not? Consider doing so in the future!

If so, what techniques do you employ to make your players feel involved in driving the plot?

Contribute to the discussion in the comments!


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